Corpse Watching, by Sarith Peou

corpse watchingCorpse Watching
By Sarith Peou
Tinfish Press, 2008
ISBN: 978-0-9789929-1-0
Paperback, 48 pages


One of the most intriguing things about this book is the faces on its cover. Large, basic, almost ugly brackets bind the book. Its production makes it so that photocopied black-and-white mug shots of children and adults are almost hidden. Their faces are sad, distraught, angry, reserved, hopeless and completely blank. They are the faces of some victims of one of the largest genocides in the twentieth century: upwards of thirty thousand Cambodian prisoners were killed at Tuol Sleng in the 1970’s. The photographs were taken before the prisoners were killed, thus we are looking at faces of the now dead, as if we, like Sarith Peou, a surviving prisoner, are “corpse watching.”

Peou is the voice of all the faces. He is definitely not looking for recognition as an author. In fact, it was his writing instructor, Ed Bok Lee, at Peou’s correctional facility who picked through the hundreds of pages of therapeutic writing and subsequently had this book printed. Peou’s poetry and prose are revealing and insightful in a matter-of-fact way. Unlike Anne Frank’s revelations and musings on the holocaust, Peou does not philosophize or write for an imagined audience. His writing style is rarely artistic and is only unique because of the experiences he writes about, but considering the chaos he lived through the uncluttered clarity of his words is a miracle.

In the first poem, “The New Regime,” Peou vividly paints the reality of life in a prison camp, without inflated phrases or artistic flourish, but with no lack of insight. It is a simple list of phrases: “No human rights. No liberty. / No courts. No judges. / No laws. No attorneys.” He moves from lists like these almost clichéd, obvious losses to smaller, more subtle, and much more moving phrases:

No affection.

No marrying. No divorcing.
No marital conflicts. No fighting.
No profanity. No cursing.

No romance. No flirting.
No fornication. No dating.
No wet dreaming.
No masturbation.
No naked sleepers.
No bathers.
No nakedness in showers.
No love songs. No love letters.

Through a kind of bittersweet sense of freedom, Peou takes generally un-beautiful things and makes them beautiful. He shows us that there was nothing in “the new regime,” even the freedom of emotion was slowly being stripped away.

Peou never says, “no innocence,” but it is there, in the rest of the book, sadly woven through his poems and his words. In “My Favorite Cousin,” he writes of his cousin’s execution for speaking English. “What did she do wrong? The innocent soul.” But he can’t remember her innocence or cheerfulness anymore, he says, “Twenty years later, / I still her see her that way. / Lost and distraught / As she was on that day.” The poem “My Sister Rachana” is one of the saddest in the collection. At the beginning, she is seven, crying for her mother and wetting the bed, as a frightened, innocent child would. She was beaten, starved, locked in the dark alone. When she was finally released, she couldn’t speak. Peou speaks of post-traumatic stress disorder, without ever calling it that, saying his sister can no longer have a normal, happy life. “She handles bad news / Better than good news,” he writes. Two fourteen year old boys with “mysterious” names and voices are the heart wrenching subjects of the concluding poem, “The Unfitted.” They are both brought into the “TMC: Traditional Medicine Center” ill and mute. While there, one boy begins speaking through disturbing drawings of weaponry and corpses, while the other eventually begins to sing and dance and smile, but before either are “fully recover[ed]” they are sent back to war as soldiers.

Sarith Peou evokes a sickening sinking feeling as well as strong sympathy from his readers. His words and images stick with us, much like the visions and voices that he cannot rid from his mind. Repeatedly, he speaks of being “reborn,” and says, “it is good to be normal again,” but through his poetry it is clear that the past still plagues him. The pain inflicted on Peou and more than 30,000 others is not one that can be forgotten or washed away. In “Scars,” Peou says literally, but with an obvious deeper meaning, “Our wounds are sprinkled with human ashes”—an image that will never leave my mind.


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